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Hoylake is still picture perfect for Els

TO a golfing generation brought up on hi-tech drivers with heads the size of industrial woks and balls that hurtle through the air like scud missiles, the thought of clattering around with a wooden club will be about as cutting edge as doddering along with the horse-drawn plough.

Ernie Els is of a different vintage, of course. The Big Easy will amble back into Hoylake this week for something of a wander down memory lane. "I was 18 and I won the Tillman Trophy at Hoylake," reflected the 44-year-old South African in the calm before the storm of the 143rd Open Championship.

"It was my first international win and I was playing with a wooden driver and drove the ball superbly. As we play the 17th hole today I drove the ball on to the edge of the green with that wooden driver: that's how hard the wind was blowing. That was my longest drive: 410 yards with a wooden club."

In 1988, Els was getting his teenage kicks. Almost 20 years later, when the Open returned to Royal Liverpool in 2006, he was still getting a kick out of that Tillman Trophy triumph.

"There's a nice picture of me with that trophy in the clubhouse which I tried to steal when I was there eight years ago but they caught me," he added with a chuckle. "I was only 18 at that time and the reason I wanted the picture would be clear if you saw it . . . I was such a skinny lad with a nice haircut."

Hoylake has remained a happy hunting ground for Els. He finished third in that Open eight years ago behind the all-conquering Tiger Woods and is relishing a return. He would be happier if he was playing a bit better, mind you, but a closing 66 in the Scottish Open at Royal Aberdeen on Sunday at least gave him a spring in his step for the journey down the road.

"I'm striking it nicely and putting okay, the only negative thing is I haven't played well in six months," said the two-time Open champion, who has still not had a top-10 finish in a strokeplay event this year. "But when I get going on Thursday I'll be ready to play."

Els' love for everything links related remains as passionate as ever. "Especially these classic old links such as Royal Aberdeen," added Els, who won his first Claret Jug at ­Muirfield in 2002 before bridging a 10-year title gap by claiming a second at Royal Lytham in 2012. "You can bounce it in and use your imagination. On newer courses the reaction is not the same as the 150-year-old links. I like the noise it makes when you strike and land the ball. It brings out the best in me for sure."

What Hoylake brings out of a ­stellar field remains to be seen. The eyes are on the Tiger, as Mr Woods returns to the scene of his last Claret Jug win in 2006. He has played only two competitive rounds since undergoing back surgery but Els is keeping an open mind about the 14-time major winner's chances. "If he's loose and healthy then he has a chance," said Els, who has been grouped with the defending Open champion Phil Mickelson and Masters winner Bubba Watson for the first two rounds at Hoylake.

"He looked a little bit stiff to me at Washington [on his comeback at Congressional]. Obviously he had serious back surgery but he can iron his way around Hoylake the way he did last time.

"You can never put anything past Tiger. We'll see how he feels because if he feels loose he can be aggressive. You have to be aggressive with your iron shots. You have to hit the turf and if he feels mentally as if his back can hold up then he has a chance."

However the tale of Tiger turns out, Els believes the man to watch is the upwardly mobile Englishman Justin Rose. Fresh from victory in the Scottish Open on Sunday, the 33-year-old is riding the crest of a wave. "He is arguably the best player in the world now," said Els. "I think he will probably have his best chance this year."

And has for Els' own chances? "I feel as if I'll have as good a chance as any of the favourites; that's what I'm going to believe in," he concluded. "And maybe I'll bring that old wooden driver with me."

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